Passengers prepare to board the Empire Builder at West Glacier. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon
Transportation

Rails-to-Trails

Visitors have been taking the Empire Builder to Glacier National Park for more than 90 years

By Justin Franz

There are an endless number of ways to get to and through Glacier National Park. For the traditionalists among us, you can use your own two feet. For those wanting to add a little speed to their workout, biking is an option, made even easier with a trail that travels along U.S. Highway 2 connecting the outlying communities with the park (and eventually Columbia Falls). Perhaps the easiest way is to get in a car or bus, but be prepared for traffic if you’re going on a sunny July weekend, unless you’re an early riser who can beat the crowds. And, if you have the money, you can even fly over Glacier Park thanks to a couple of helicopter tour providers. 

But perhaps the most historic way to get to and see Glacier National Park is by rail. 

While it was a president’s signature that created Glacier National Park back in 1910, it was the Great Northern Railway — which ran along the southern edge of the park — that helped develop some of the first amenities there. In an effort to get more people to ride its trains, the Great Northern built hotels, chalets and lodges in and around the park. It also offered tours within the park that started at the railroad’s two primary depots along the route: West Glacier and East Glacier Park. 

According to legend, the Great Northern’s president, Louis Hill, was so dedicated to making sure his passengers enjoyed themselves in Glacier that he even focused on the smallest details, like what type of soap was stocked in the lodges. 

Starting in the 1920s, passengers were able to ride one of the premier passenger trains in all the land: The Empire Builder. On June 11, 1929, the first Empire Builder departed Chicago with a train of luxury passenger cars that were, according to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, “the last word in comfort, amenities and speed for their day.” The train’s name came from the Great Northern’s founder, James J. Hill, who dedicated his life to building a railroad empire that still spans the continent today. The train crossed the country in a brisk 63 hours. In 1935, an added bit of luxury arrived when the train was outfitted with air-conditioned passenger cars. 

In March 1970, the Great Northern merged with three other railroads to become Burlington Northern, later renamed BNSF Railway. The 1960s and 1970s were a trying time for America’s railroads, especially those in the passenger business. With the growing popularity of commercial flights and an ever-expanding highway system, railroads were losing more and more passengers to planes and cars. In order to save intercity passenger service, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970 that led to the creation of Amtrak, a private, for-profit railroad company owned and funded by the government. Amtrak ran its first trains on May 1, 1971, including the Empire Builder. As part of the deal to relieve freight companies of having to operate passenger trains, the railroads agreed to let Amtrak run its trains on their tracks.

Amtrak had its fair share of growing pains and was the subject of numerous cuts as it tried to shed redundant routes in the 1970s and 1980s. Through it all though the Empire Builder survived. Today, it runs daily from Chicago to Portland and Seattle (the train splits into two separate sections at Spokane). 

The eastbound Empire Builder stops in Whitefish every morning and makes stops at West Glacier, Essex and East Glacier Park. The westbound train makes the same stops in the evening. The schedule means that you could easily board the train at Whitefish in the morning and enjoy a day in the park before coming back in the evening, or you could spend a few days in and around the park at one of the many lodges and hotels. For the train lover, there might be no better place than the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. The Inn was built in the 1930s to house railroaders and is today a popular vacation spot. The train drops passengers off just steps from the inn. 

Even if you’re not interested in going for a hike or staying in Glacier Park, Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder, which turns 90 this year, is still a fun and unique way to take in the scenic wonder of Northwest Montana.

See Amtrak.com for more detailed schedules and ticket prices.

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